(October 3, 1877–December 17, 1934)
–21st governor of Iowa—was notorious for his wartime behavior. The high point of his political career was the huge plurality he received in the hard-fought election of 1916.
Harding's political base lay near his birthplace in rural Osceola County. Educated at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and the University of South Dakota Law School, he modeled his Republican Standpat politics on those of Senator Jonathan Dolliver and became an extroverted man-about-town in Sioux City. In 1907 Harding married Carrie Lamoreux and began the first of three terms in the Iowa House of Representatives. In 1911 conflict over filling a U.S. Senate seat deadlocked the Iowa legislature, spotlighting Harding, who brokered a compromise by using the votes of his conservative colleagues to elect progressive Republican William S. Kenyon.
When Harding ran for lieutenant governor in 1914, he attracted 11,000 more votes than the top of the ticket. His appeal was that in a dry state he was a covert wet. Despite decades of prohibition, legal exceptions allowed a few saloons in river towns. Religious and progressive support for a prohibition amendment to the Iowa Constitution would cut off these avenues. The choice for governor in November 1916 was between a progressive Democrat who was dry and conservative Republican Harding, whose campaign rhetoric emphasized "home rule" and "hands-off" government–code words not only to ethnic communities who enjoyed beer but also to another constituency who wanted local control. Southern and central Iowans, more native born and rural (and dry) than other Iowans, needed a champion against modernism. "Paved roads" was their anathema: state-mandated hard-surfaced roads would ruin the isolated character of their counties and lure their children off the farms. In "mud roads" counties, Harding proclaimed that he opposed bonded debt and supported the local option of unsurfaced roads.
Harding faced a formidable array of opponents: clergy condemned his candidacy from pulpits each Sunday; Governor George Clarke opposed him; and the formidable Des Moines Register, Republican from its founding, endorsed Harding's Democratic opponent and published a caricature by "Ding" Darling of a bloated and inebriated froglike Harding squatting in a mud road croaking, "jug-o-rum."However, Senator Kenyon, politically grateful, did endorse Harding. Democratic foreign-language newspapers urged their readers to switch parties to elect Harding. James Pierce, dry progressive editor of a popular farm weekly, switched his allegiance to Harding and supplied a note of moral indignation on behalf of rural Davids against urban Goliaths, which offset the urban boss aura that clung to candidate Harding.
Harding was spectacularly successful in his courting of the two dissimilar constituencies. He carried 98 of 99 counties in an overwhelming turnout of voters: 115,000 more people voted in 1916 than in 1914, and in both prohibitionist "mud roads" counties and wet Democratic counties Harding captured big victories.
Three months after the new governor took office, the United States declared war on Germany, and the two factions that had elected Harding were eviscerated. Since prohibition (to conserve grain) and road paving (to transport troops) were tied to the national war effort, both issues of Harding's campaign were tainted as being unpatriotic. Harding appointed his former opponents, the urban progressives and community boosters, to a State Council of Defense, and following Iowa's lackluster ranking in Liberty Loan buying among the states, he ordered Councils of Defense to be set up in every county.
By the third Liberty Loandrive, in the spring of 1918, Iowa employed a house-to-house assessment to become the first state to reach its quota, but community coercion had significant costs. County councils functioned as kangaroo courts, with mob violence the punishment. Churches divided, threshing crews reformed to ostracize individuals; old feuds resurfaced. Governor Harding's mandate that "all must declare if they are friends or enemies" led to forced oaths. Warnings to stop vigilantism came from the federal government, yet Harding repeated his threat of "necktie parties" for noncontributors. When James Pierce labeled the third Liberty Loan process "Iowa's Reign of Terror" and described public humiliations and mob coercion throughout Iowa, he was voted off the State Council of Defense.
On May 14, 1918, Governor Harding issued his infamous Babel Proclamation, to supplement a ban on the teaching of German in any school in Iowa: "Conversation in public places, on trains and over the telephone should be in the English language."Church services–even funerals—were banned in any language but English. The proclamation was immediately controversial. The Bohemian, Danish, Dutch, and Norwegian ethnic communities were outraged to be considered a danger to the nation while speaking a language of the Allies. Yet Harding enforced his proclamation. Arrests were made for telephone party-line and street-corner conversations, and churches, colleges, private schools, and newspapers closed their doors, most of them forever. Only Iowa had such a ban, and it exposed the governor to some ridicule.
After the fourth Liberty Loan opened in October 1918, a U.S. Treasury agent rebuked Iowa's Council of Defense for the "strong arm" methods it used to sell bonds, but the governor did not try to calm the vindictive atmosphere in the state. The Armistice and Harding's reelection bid came in the same week, along with the worst excesses of wartime Iowa. The people most injured by Harding's conduct of the home front–and those voters who might have defeated him—stayed away from the polls. Harding's vote total dropped 129,000 from 1916. He lost every township that had over half ethnic stock. Yet he won reelection by a small margin and continued as governor over a demoralized state.
Harding hoped to win national office following his time as governor, but an election-week scandal derailed his career. A campaign worker solicited a cash donation of $5,000 from the father of a young man convicted of rape, in return for a promised pardon, which Governor Harding duly issued. An investigation by Attorney General Horace Havner, at odds with Harding, provoked a blaze of publicity. Harding found no support among progressive Iowans, his recent allies. The Iowa legislature voted 70-34 to censure the governor, and he finished his term in 1920 under a cloud.
Undermined by diabetes, Harding campaigned out of state for Republican candidates until his death at age 57.
Sources Harding's papers are held at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. Secondary sources include Nancy Ruth Derr, "Iowans during World War I: A Study of Change Under Stress" (Ph.D. diss., George Washington University, 1979); John Evert Visser, "William Lloyd Harding and the Republican Party in Iowa, 1906–1920" (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1957); and Tom Morain, "Pardon Me, Governor: Ernest Rathbun, William Harding, and the Politics of Justice," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 86 (2005), 150–57.
Derr, Nancy. "Harding, William Lloyd" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web.
15 March 2014